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Walter, Gregory A. [Foreword by P. Keifert]
Being Promised. Theology, Gift, and Practice.
Grand Rapids u. a.: Wm. B. Eerdmans 2013. XIV, 110 S. = Sacra Doctrina: Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age. Kart. US$ 25,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6415-4.
In this little treatise Gregory Walter, associate professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Minnesota, weaves together reflections based on biblical material, postmodern philosophy, and classic and con-temporary theology.
The book is in some way rather dense, and contains theological positions ranging from Martin Luther to Radical Orthodoxy. The main contribution of the work lies in its deliberate attempt to combine two theologically relevant phenomena: promise and gift, and show what this combination may offer in terms of venues for theological reflection.
The first chapter sets the stage and develops the close relation between promise, speech-acts and gifts. The main thesis is that a promise should be seen as a gift. W. describes the promise as gift as something »doubled and extended« – which means that this gift contains two moments of giving: the concrete promising, and the actual gift. This double character cannot be grasped unless one also sees a difference between the two in terms of time. The biblical narrative employed in order to illustrate this point is the story about the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah and their promise to them that they will have a son.
The theoretical underpinning of these initial features is supplied by Mauss and Derrida, and by Searle and Austin. Starting out with Mauss’ anthropological studies of gift-giving as a practice that contains three obligations – to give, to receive, and to offer a counter-gift in return, W. structures his discussions and elaborations around these, and adds another element as well: that of the place of the gift. This latter topic is one that Mauss does not develop.
Chapter 2 discusses, accordingly, the special obligation(s) implied in offering the promise/gift. The main theological point here is that promise interacts with, transforms and interrupts so-called gift economies. Furthermore, as promise is both gift and being, it opens up to a discussion about actuality and possibility – a topic discussed especially in contemporary German theology.
Chapter 3 develops the »extended« character of gift – the time »in between«, or the delay of the gift. Thereby W. can consider the power, time and being of the promise. Of special interest here is how the gift of promise opens up the future and offers time where there is none. As W. writes, »God’s promise has no closure or completion.« Promise shapes a new relation to time.
The fourth chapter discusses the obligation to receive and return the gift – and also includes an important discussion about the impure gift, as God’s gift offers new places for action towards self and the other. This chapter thus discusses the social actions emerging from God’s gift towards us. God’s gift opens up new chances for love.
The fifth chapter discusses, as already indicated, the place of the gift, and thereby opens up to a discussion about hospitality, which in many ways also can be seen in continuation with the preceding chapters’ discussion about social issues.
W.’s work may be described as phenomenological in the sense that he aims at presenting a case where the understanding of promise as gift sheds new light on both the phenomena in question. He succeeds in making this case, and contributes with many important and interesting elaborations that show how fruitful it is to see promise as gift. He is also well versed in contemporary literature on the relevant topics, be it in philosophy or theology.
On the more critical side, one can ask if W.’s treatise could have benefited from being more expanded: as it now appears, it is rather dense, and the shift from one mode of discourse to another is some-times surprising. It is not always clear what procedure he follows when he develops his arguments. Furthermore, the considerable amount of authors he cites and draws on are often passed over too quickly; a procedure that leaves one wanting to know more and thinking that there is more to be said. That would be the case with, e. g. theologian Bo Holm, or philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, among others. T his critique notwithstanding, the book is a valuable addi-tion to the growing literature on the phenomenon of gift in contemporary theology.